Jewish Journal

Should I “Rescue” My Middle-Schooler?

Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman

October 23, 2013 | 8:07 pm

More than a forgotten lunch?

My three kids and I made it out the door on time this morning - and, yes, I will happily accept congratulations for this not-always-the-case occurrence! The ride to school went smoothly, and one of our favorite safety-patrollers was on duty as my kids tumbled out of the car, meeting up with friends and chatting they entered the building. A completely easy, successful dropoff, and a great way for me to begin my own day.

Until I noticed that my son had left his lunch in the car.

I was only two minutes away from school, and my first meeting wasn't until nine - I could easily swing back to school and drop it off for him, right?

Well, not so much. Because my son started middle school this year, and that changes everything.

Just last year, he was still an elementary-schooler - a fifth-grader who, it was understood, would occasionally leave lunches, books, and assignments at home, and whose parents would bring them to school if at all possible. Last month, I executed that same move when he left his social studies binder in the laundry room; dutifully taking the binder to school, I left it at the front desk for him to grab before class - but when he got in the car at pickup that day, my son had some news for me:

"Thanks for bringing me the binder," he said, "but my teacher wants me to tell you that you can't do that again. He says I need to accept the consequences when I forget something instead of letting you rescue me."

I often wrestle with the line between taking care of my kids and fostering their resourcefulness, between doing nice things for them and infantilizing them, between relishing their fleeting childhoods and stifling their independence. They are, my daughter informs me, the only kids in their classes expected to make their own lunches; according to my oldest, no one else in the school has to do regular chores like take out the garbage, load and unload the dishwasher, and check if the car tires are properly inflated. They are allowed to eat (organic) mac and cheese whenever they want, provided they cook it and clean up themselves, and I have been known to let them wander the grocery store or mall instead of gluing them to me as I shop. However, I spend way too much time putting away their socks, as well as looking for books engaging enough that they'll snuggle up on the couch and ask me to read just one more chapter.

But here was a line I'd clearly missed: the line between mom and middle-schooler. And every fiber in my Jewish mother-being was urging me to turn the car around and bring my son his lunch (he'll be hungry! They'll rustle up a few crackers and sugar-added jelly, when he could be eating organic yogurt, a banana, and even some carrots!) I wondered if Jewish teaching would provide me with a rationale (an excuse?) for circumventing my son's teacher's decree..

After all, Judaism clearly states that adulthood begins at the age of thirteen for boys (only twelve for girls - but that's another conversation!) Surely at eleven, my son was still a child - a child who would benefit from his parent's ministrations, a child young enough to be "rescued" by his lunch-toting mom, right? Think of our matriarch Sarah, so intent on protecting her son Isaac that she cast Ishmael into the wilderness, and our matriarch Rebekah, who tricked her own husband in order to secure a blessing for her beloved Jacob - what would they think of me if I let some arbitrary rule stand between my son and his lunch?

Except that maybe it wasn't so arbitrary. While the significance of Bar Mitzvah - and the idea that a thirteen-year-old can be counted as an adult - may lack meaning in our day-to-day secular lives (have you seen that great Jewish haiku? "Today I am a man/Tomorrow I return/To the seventh grade"), our ancient rabbis were onto something in seeing adolescents as more than mere children. While a thirteen-year-old may not be able to vote, or drive, or even iron their own clothes without assistance, they are ready to become more autonomous, more self-reliant, more helper than helpee. They are ready to proclaim who they are, to forge an identity, to take responsibility.

Is my son is going to be ready for that in a year and a half? Probably not if I continue to bail him out, smooth his path, shield him from consequences. So (forgive me, mother Sarah), I continued on my way, stuck the lunch in the refrigerator for tomorrow, and let my son fend for himself.

When my son came home from school today, he was, he told me, "super-hungry." I bet you are, I said. I noticed you left your lunch in the car.

"Yeah," he replied. "I didn't get anything to eat."

"That must have been tough," I commiserated.

"It was." He patted his stomach and picked up a magazine. "I'm going to make sure I remember my lunch tomorrow."

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